The Holocaust began in 1933 and lasted until 1945.
At that time, it was estimated that throughout Germany and beyond there were some 300 forced labor camps, to include "Death Camps" (their singular purpose being to exterminate a people). It was only later, as archives were opened, to include those of the Red Cross, that scholars revised their opinion of the depth and breadth of the Holocaust. It is now estimated that there were some 42,500 ghettos and camps wherein 15 million to 20 million people were killed or imprisoned; two-thirds were Jews living in Europe, and at least 1.1 million were children.
At the end of World War II, when the Nazi concentration camps were liberated, the response, not only by the German people, who were brought by the Allies to view the horrific carnage, but by the world at large, was: we didn't know. Among those who were in the camps and survived, such as Elie Wiesel, author and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his book "Night," there are those who take umbrage with that claim.
In November of 1938 the Nazis carried out a Jewish pogrom that came to be known as "Kristallnacht" (Crystal Night). Glass littered the streets of German cities and towns resulting from the destruction of Jewish homes, businesses, buildings and at least 1,000 synagogues. Some 90 Jews were killed and more than 30,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Crystal Night was widely reported around the world to the shock of governments, to include the U.S. which recalled its ambassador (but did not break off diplomatic relations). That singular night revealed the deep and abiding anti-Semitism that gripped Germany. It was then that Germany began what would be called the "Final Solution," resulting in millions from across Europe sent by transport to places such as Auschwitz and Dachau where the Nazi ovens operated continually, sending clouds of ash into the air where it fell like snow.
It is hard to imagine that people, not only of Germany but also governments worldwide, did not know. It was a feeble response to one of the most unspeakable acts perpetrated by one people against another and represented an evil that remains to this day unimaginable.
And it was the language of "we did not know" that was pointedly used when the United Nations signaled the coming release of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea.
North Korea has been judged in the report to have committed, and continues to commit, crimes against humanity that mirror those of the Holocaust.
Today, at this moment, in the northeastern part of North Korea is a gulag of concentration camps, some meant for "reeducation" and others for those deemed to have committed "political crimes" against the state. It is estimated that there are some 120,000 prisoners (no one knows for sure) held in remote, mountainous valleys where they are subjected to mass starvation, torture, rape, denial of reproductive rights, infanticide, forced abortions and executions. As well, untold numbers have died from crippling accidents and frostbite as they labor daily in mines and fields while watched closely by camp security guards.
To instill fear in the country's population, North Korea's leaders and security apparatus carry out what are known as "disappearances." If an individual is judged to be a threat to the state, he or she vanishes into the gulag, absent charges or trial. Family members are never notified.
In fact, it is not unusual for the extended family of an accused person to also be incarcerated, to include parents, grandparents, children, siblings and grandchildren. The sentence can be indefinite. And even if there is an ostensible sentence, most will never survive their detention in these brutal labor colonies where life is led on the precipice of death. To look at North Korea is to see once again the face of evil. This we know.
The question is, what is our collective responsibility? What can be done? What can the U.N. do other than disseminate the report? Can we do no more than bear witness to what is a perpetuated horror that defies understanding and knows no end?
Yes, the current leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, can be referred to the World Court for crimes against humanity and be subject to arrest. But the reality is that Kim will never, in all likelihood, be held accountable for the pogrom still carried out against his own people.
In the words of an old saying, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." And therein lies the conundrum, as was the case when Syria gassed its own people. In reality, all we may have is a rejection of silence in the face of an unmitigated evil, made manifest in the U.N. Commission report.
Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.